The practice of printmaking is labor-intensive, which is why, for most of our history, it has been seen as a practice primarily associated with men. When Anupam Sud joined the Delhi College of Art in the early 1960s as a student, India went to war with China. When artists Somnath Hore and Jagmohan Chopra were setting up the printmaking department at the college, amidst the Indo-China War (1962), metal plates for etching were hard to acquire, and this environment of thin resources and wide-eyed, artistic idealism shaped Sud’s oeuvre.
Since metal plates were hard to come by, Sud took to creating collographs that used cardboard plates instead. Therein began a lifetime of constantly molding her artistic self in accordance with the limits and the possibilities of the times Sud lived through. She later enrolled at The Slade in London, where she, in her study of printmaking, used metal plates for the first time.
The Soul (Un)Gendered: Anupam Sud, A Retrospective at DAG gallery is the first retrospective of Sud’s work in the USA, and it is a good introduction in that it displays her intense and extensive art. The exhibition reveals the drawings of the gods and goddesses she made while looking after her ailing mother, the portraits she drew of herself over the years, her sketches, her etchings, her lino cuts, and her watercolors.
As in most other places in the world, Modernism in India was mostly dominated by men, and women artists (a label that Sud distanced herself from) often had to be consciously banded together for their work to be seen and appreciated. But the work Sud was creating was distinct and radical, and, unsurprisingly, she emerged as one of the country’s most prominent printmakers.
The body takes centrality in Sud’s art, at once a site of vulnerability and power. The politics of her times make obvious appearances: 1975’s Emergency led by Indira Gandhi, 1992’s Mandal Commission protests, and 2012’s gang rape of Jyoti Singh. Her interest in the human form emerged from the fact that her father was a bodybuilder. She drew men and women in the nude with neoclassical perfection but chose to do away with all embellishments: jewelry, clothes, hair, genitalia. Sud’s men and women interact with one another — visit markets, eat, smoke, talk — within the twilight of sexual ambiguity. A homosocial intimacy brackets her art, which is also underlined by an acute understanding of gender roles within heterosexual relationships.
The delicate moment of a woman and a man enjoying a cup of tea in the nude in Sud’s 2006 etching “Over a Cup of Tea” is directly undercut by the harshness of her 1999 etching “Dining with Ego” where the man eats away in blind gluttony while the woman sits wistfully over an empty plate.
Sud’s is a world of boxes, cubes, and mirrors that also trap bodies. Her mother believed that the body was a box that wouldn’t let a soul escape. With her art, Anupam Sud makes and breaks these boxes and teases the souls out of their confinements so that they can soar and expand beyond the trappings of gender, sex, and societal norms — a detention not many women artists in India have dared to attempt to dismantle.
The Soul (Un)Gendered: Anupam Sud, A Retrospective continues at the DAG Modern (41 East 57th Street, Manhattan) through March 7. The exhibition was curated by Paula Sengupta.